Causes of Hand Pain and Treatment Options

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The hand is a complex body part made up of myriad bones, ligaments, tendons, nerves, skin, and other structures that allow it to perform a wide variety of activities from delicate manipulation to heavy lifting. All the complexity and demands can lead to an array of conditions that can make your hands hurt.

hand pain causes

Verywell / Emily Roberts

Causes

While it can have many causes, just a few conditions are responsible for most hand pain. Some require medical treatment, while you may be able to relieve others on your own with self-care. The most common causes of hand pain include:

  • Arthritis
  • Tendonitis/trigger finger
  • Ligament injury
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Injuries
  • Ganglion cysts
  • Raynaud's phenomenon
  • Scleroderma

Arthritis

The hand is the most common part of the body to develop arthritis and especially osteoarthritis, which is a normal part of the aging process and involves the loss of cartilage in your joints. The vast majority of people over the age of 60 have signs of osteoarthritis in their hands. However, some people develop hand arthritis at an earlier age. Symptoms, which sometimes can be severe, include:

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of joint disease affecting the hand. Other types can involve the hand, as well, including rheumatoid arthritis (RA). RA is an autoimmune disease in which your immune system attacks the lining of the joints.

Tendonitis/Trigger Finger

Tendonitis involves inflammation within or around a tendon. That affects the way your hands and fingers move and causes pain and swelling at the site of the inflammation. Tendonitis is caused by injuries (usually a sharp, sudden movement) or repetitive movements.

Sometimes, tendons develop hard lumps called nodules that you can feel through your skin. They can catch on other structures in the hand and make your finger "stick" as you try to move it. When the tendon releases, it causes a snapping sensation known as a trigger finger.

The cause of nodules isn't fully understood, but they can be related to medical conditions such as RA and diabetes or certain forceful movements of the fingers.

Ligament Injury

Your hand has 27 bones that are all connected by an elaborate network of ligaments that allow for movement while stabilizing your joints. Any kind of trauma to your hands can injure one or more ligaments, which causes problems with simple activities such as bending your fingers, gripping, or pinching.

Ligament injuries in the hand can take months to heal, and it is not uncommon for people to notice swelling and stiffness for a long time afterward.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Several major nerves provide sensation to the hand, and when one of them is injured or compressed (such as by inflammation), it can cause a lot of pain and reduce function. The most common hand condition involving nerve compression is carpal tunnel syndrome, which occurs with irritation or damage to the median nerve in the wrist.

Carpal tunnel syndrome causes hand pain that can be achy and sometimes "zingy," as well as tingling or numbness in the fingers and thumb. Rubbing the inside of your wrist may cause tingling or electrical nerve sensations, as well. Pain can also radiate up your arm, and you may notice weakness or clumsiness.

This condition is most often caused by repetitive stress, such as extensive typing, scanning groceries, or using a hammer. Heredity is also believed to contribute, as are other conditions including RA, diabetes, and thyroid disease.

Other nerves supplying the hand can also become pinched, leading to symptoms in different areas. When it's the ulnar nerve that runs behind your elbow joint, it's called cubital tunnel syndrome.

Injuries

The hand is vulnerable to many kinds of injuries, including bone fractures and muscle strains. Potential causes of hand injuries are endless—fingers get jammed into things, hands get slammed in doors, and during some sports, your hand may even get stepped on.

With myriad small bones, joints, and muscles in a small space, you can have a variety of different breaks or strains that each come with their own specific symptoms and functional limitations. It's important to have a healthcare provider evaluate and treat serious injuries so they can heal properly.

Ganglion Cysts

All throughout your body, you have joints and tendon sheaths that normally contain fluid. A ganglion cyst occurs when that fluid accumulates into a pouch, which shows up as a bump. These cysts develop most often in the wrist.

Ganglion cysts cause pain when they interfere with normal movements of the joints and tendons. They're common in the hands for two reasons:

  1. Hands have a multitude of joints and tendon sheaths where the cysts can form.
  2. They're easy to see on the hands, whereas elsewhere they may go unnoticed.

The cause of ganglion cysts is unknown, but they're more common in women and adults under 40. People whose wrists take a lot of strain, such as gymnasts, are especially prone, as well.

Many other less common causes of hand pain exist and should be considered if a more common problem is not identified. Your healthcare provider can help determine the exact condition that's causing your symptoms and find the most appropriate treatment.

Raynaud's Phenomenon

In Raynaud's phenomenon, also called Raynaud's syndrome, your fingers and possibly other extremities have an abnormally strong reaction to cold temperatures. They may turn blue or white when chilled and then get bright red when they warm up. Some people experience a painful throbbing, tingling, or swelling.

Other parts that may be affected by Raynaud's include:

  • Ears
  • Nose
  • Nipples
  • Knees
  • Toes

Raynaud's is caused by over-responsive blood vessels in your extremities. In some cases, it's a symptom of another condition, such as autoimmune or connective tissue disease, hypothyroidism, or fibromyalgia. In other cases, it's unknown what makes the blood vessels behave abnormally.

Scleroderma

Scleroderma is a disease that causes the skin and other organs to harden. It especially affects the hands and face, and one of the first symptoms is often swollen, painful muscles and joints in the hands. The disease may be limited to certain parts of the body or be widespread.

Scleroderma involves abnormalities of the immune system, connective tissues, and small blood vessels, but the underlying cause of those abnormalities isn't yet understood.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Most often, hand pain will resolve with some simple treatments. However, some conditions require more urgent treatment. You should call a healthcare provider if you have:

Diagnosis

Healthcare providers have several tools for figuring out the cause of your hand pain. Most of the time, they'll examine you and then decide what tests are necessary for making a diagnosis. If your healthcare provider wants a look at the structures inside your hand, they may order:

To look for infection or signs of disease, they may also order a variety of blood tests, especially for markers of infection or inflammation, such as a complete blood count (CBC), erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR or sed rate), and C-reactive protein (CRP).

Treatment

Most hand conditions respond to a few simple treatments. Even broken bones in your hand may heal with simple, nonsurgical treatment. However, you should get checked out by a healthcare provider to make sure nothing's going on that requires medical care such as physical therapy or surgery. Your healthcare provider can also tell you whether immobilization, such as a splint, is necessary.

Self Care

When you have hand pain that's not an emergency, you may want to try some simple measures to help control your pain and improve function, including:

  • Rest: Hand pain from a minor injury, overuse, or repetitive stress often resolves with rest, which allows inflammation to subside.
  • Ice: Ice can reduce inflammation and pain from many causes.
  • Heat: Stiff joints and achy muscles may be soothed and loosened up by heat.

OTC Medication

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) like Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen) are available over-the-counter (OTC). These can relieve inflammation and pain and are a common choice for people with hand problems. Alternatively, you may prefer Tylenol (acetaminophen), which relieves pain but doesn't help control inflammation.

Medical Approaches

Self-care and medication aren't always the answer for hand pain. For some conditions, healthcare providers may recommend:

  • Splints: A simple splint or brace may ease symptoms and prevent exacerbations.
  • Prescription drugs: Some hand pain may benefit from corticosteroid injections, oral steroids, prescription NSAIDs, or stronger painkillers.
  • Hand therapy: Hand therapists are specialists who know many different ways to treat hand conditions and prevent recurrences.

If your hand pain is the result of a systemic condition, such as RA or scleroderma, treating the underlying disease is likely to help, as well.

Surgery

Some hand conditions may improve with surgery, including:

  • Severe breaks
  • Torn muscles or connective tissues
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome

Severe cases of arthritis in the hand may require joint-replacement surgery.

Frequently Asked Questions

What type of healthcare provider treats hand pain?

It's best to start with your primary care provider. Based on what they think is causing the pain, they may refer you to a rheumatologist or an orthopedist.

Can diabetic neuropathy cause hand pain?

Yes. You may experience deep aching or stabbing pains in the hands with diabetic neuropathy as well as tingling, numbness, and burning. The sensations may be controlled with pain medication, but it's also important to get your blood sugar under control.

A Word From Verywell

Hand function is critical to everyday activities, and hand pain can be limiting and debilitating. If it's affecting your life and ability to function, see your healthcare provider. They may be able to help you find simple solutions or uncover a serious problem that needs medical treatment. No matter the cause, taking proper care of your hands can make you feel better and keep you doing what you need and want to do.

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18 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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